Prick Us, Do We Not Bleed? Teach Us, Should We Not Study?

In his diary column in the Times on Monday 5th January David Aaronovitch wrote about going to see, recently and for the first time, a production of the Merchant of Venice. Aaronovitch: “…nothing can disguise the fact that this was an anti-Jewish play for an anti-Jewish audience. The Jew cares as much for his money as he does for his daughter, and even more for the blood of a Christian than he does for his money. Thus he conforms to two of the great, historical anti-Jewish stereotypes.” Aaronovitch goes on to point out that Shylock is humiliated with the approval of the heroes of the play and that there is nothing a director can do to mitigate this. He finishes by stating that he will not go and see a production of the play again.

Anthony Julius writes: “I must confess to walking out of productions of the play when the fourth act is over, in protest. When Shylock leaves, so do I.” He argues that Shylock defines English anti-semitism. He writes: “The Merchant of Venice is the most important event in the history of Jew-hatred in England.” This event is compounded every time ‘The Merchant of Venice’ makes an appearance in school syllabi or is performed as a school production. Communities minister Eric Pickles describes anti-semitism as ‘an ancient evil’ and that: ‘Anti-Semitism… [is] completely incompatible with traditional British values and totally unacceptable in our society.’ In schools he wants to see lessons on the holocaust, yet whilst these lessons are being taught in a history classroom, across the corridor in an English or drama room one of the roots of our prejudice might be trotted out year after year. Teach it, do we not bleed? Teachers do get their students to discuss the play’s anti-semitic content, in fact they would possibly fall foul of all sorts of legislation if they didn’t, as David Cameron said: “There can never be any excuse for anti-Semitism, and no disagreements on politics or policy should ever be allowed to justify racism, prejudice or extremism in any form.” And yet this play is arguably an excuse for it. That it is written by, possibly, our most famous son and is part of what we think of as ‘high culture’ gives it a sheen of respectability that could mean we are irresponsible to teach it to children in our schools.

Daniel Hannan writes here about how the play is worse read than seen performed, because when performed the actor can subtly lessen the obnoxious elements of his characterisation, but on the page, he argues, it is unrelenting. Yet this play is part of our examination curriculum and its unrelenting nature increases under the scrutiny required for study at GCSE or A level. Would an examinee be able to write on her anger about this being an examined text, could a mark scheme cope with the vehemence of a child asked to sit through lessons upon lessons of this loathsome stereotype only to be asked to offer balanced and reasonable thoughts as to the ‘attitudes shown towards Shylock, possibly contrasting contemporary with modern reception?’ Shylock is not a person, he is a character in a play, a written device, and one that might appear too hateful to approach in a considered way.

Do exams allow us to get to grips with the real nature of this play’s portrayal of a Jewish character? What about a candidate who protests in an exam? How can she register her disgust about the play? By accepting the premise of the play as being ‘acceptable’ to study does she not collude with it being part of our educational canon? What if she wrote that the play was anti-semitic and that the areas the mark scheme focuses on accept the stereotype rather than alleviate it? Or what if she walks out after answering the questions on other texts after spoiling the Merchant part of her exam paper in protest?

Here is an AQA exemplar question and mark scheme for the GCSE (2014):

The Merchant of Venice

Question 4

Starting with this speech, how does Shakespeare present Shylock’s feelings about the way he is treated?

Write about:

  • how Shakespeare presents Shylock in this speech
  • how Shakespeare presents Shylock in the play as a whole.

Indicative content

Examiners are encouraged to reward any valid interpretations. Answers might, however, include some of the following:


  • Response to Shylock in this extract and elsewhere in the play
  • Shylock’s behaviour and whether or not it is justified – both here and elsewhere in the play
  • Shylock’s refusal to lend money and possible reasons for/reactions to this
  • Shylock’s treatment at the hands of Antonio and others AO2
  • Use and effect of questions
  • Use and effect of anecdotal speech
  • Effect of repetition: ‘monies’ etc
  • Use and effect of imagery of dog/cur AO3
  • Attitudes towards usury
  • Attitudes towards Shylock, possibly contrasting contemporary with modern reception
  • Shylock as outsider/victim of society
  • Shylock as pariah

What about the anti semitic candidate who wrote that the Jew is rightly seen as a pariah? If all the evidence was presented in a well argued piece, conforming to the mark scheme, would the examiner feel obliged to mark it highly? Would the examinee and the examiner not then be colluding in an anti-semitism that is ‘incompatible with traditional British values’?

Pity the teacher, playing devil’s advocate in class and pricking the consciences of her charges, who could be open to all sorts of accusations. Classrooms should be places to explore thought and therefore all thought should be open to discussion in a reasoned way, but some works might have something so hateful running through their core that some might find it too challenging to discuss in a reasoned way, imagine what it might be like in a class somewhere to be the one Jewish child who is constantly asked to ‘give their opinion’ about Shylock.

Maybe we should ban it from our schools? But banning certain texts because of their controversial themes could one day leave us with the question: what then is left that we can study? Maybe, like the repeats of old Top of the Pops, it would be better to cut bits out of the text.

The Jubilee Centre of Character Education uses the Merchant of Venice as one of its texts to teach children under the age of 11 about virtues. The objectives are:

  • To explore in greater depth the virtues of self-discipline, justice and gratitude.
  • Enable pupils to become familiar with the story of the Merchant of Venice

Pupils are read a somewhat shorter version of the story and one of the tasks they are asked to do is:

Teacher read comments below and ask the children to agree (thumbs up or thumbs down) with the statements (useful assessment of pupils’ understanding of virtues):

  • Antonio displayed the virtue of gratitude when Shylock lent him the money
  • Portia showed the virtue of humility when she was pretending to be a lawyer
  • Portia demonstrated the virtue of self-discipline by not letting her husband (Antonio) know she was the lawyer and had the wedding ring

It seems here that the entire question of anti-semitism in the play is ignored, probably edited out in the shortened version given to the children, is this the best thing to do? If the anti-semitism is airbrushed out of the text do the pupils really “become familiar with the story”?

Todays events in Paris should give us pause for thought. Free speech is an important part of our tradition. I think we should study the Merchant of Venice. If anything, the play can be used to answer the question ‘How great was Shakespeare?’ and maybe brought in as evidence for the anti-Shakespeare lobby. Questions could be asked about Shylock and the whether the play reflects its writer’s anti-semitism, the anti semitism of the time and whether the play should be performed or studied at all in this day and age. This should be conducted in a way that allows for a full discussion rather than silencing opinion through an expectation of politically correct viewpoints that might be encouraged  by our need to represent British values of ‘tolerance’. The best way to counter unpleasant views is to allow them to be expressed and then counteract them, in fact to display the British value of ‘intolerance’ of ‘intolerance’ maybe? However, the nature of examinations means it should not be studied for exam purposes, no matter how well the exam boards might think they cope with the ‘Shylock question,’ there must be some doubt about whether every child studying the play will agree that he should be thought of as a ‘character’ at all.

But it is its possible performance in the school theatre that brings me to this distressing conclusion, I do not think a school age cast should ever be asked to perform the Merchant of Venice especially in an atmosphere where schools have to respond to the ‘British Values’ agenda. A young actor getting to grips with the character or being asked to ‘sanitise’ his portrayal has a formidable task whether they are Jewish or Gentile, therefore as a school play, or as a performed exam piece it could be far too awkward or challenging. (Howard Sherman writes passionately about school theatre censorship here. Here is a review of a Jewish production of the Merchant of Venice at the Globe)

We could also have the same discussions about Oliver Twist and the character of Fagin, that other major contribution to anti-semitism in our cultural landscape. As Julius puts it: “These, then, are England’s gifts to Jew hatred.” Made even more likely to be performed in a school as a musical, with its delightful score written by the Jewish composer Lionel Bart, Fagin offers huge challenges for any performer or, indeed, any examinee writing about him. I think we might have to ask similar questions about Oliver but, maybe, draw different conclusions?

Which brings me to the Taming of the Shrew…

9 thoughts on “Prick Us, Do We Not Bleed? Teach Us, Should We Not Study?

  1. As you point out Shylock is ‘a character in a play’. One of the key aspects of Drama is using fiction to look at reality. When Aaronovitch walks out of the theatre he is reacting to fiction ‘as if’ it is real, which is a shame. This may be the fault of the production. But in prompting the act of walking out the fiction has caused him to react to the events portrayed. This will always be the power of Theatre – making people think.


    1. I don’t think so, in fact I argue for the opposite and open up the dialogue beyond that which may be offered by the exam board or, indeed, when one goes to a school production, though as Sherman writes in his piece about school production censorship (to which I link in the piece): “Schools have the right and responsibility to determine what is appropriate activity and speech under their control, and just because students are exposed to all manner of content in the media and even in their day-to-day lives doesn’t mean that schools can or must permit it, either in classrooms or performance.”

      My point is: don’t censor, but look for how to approach the piece so that it is open to a wide critique.

      I also think when Jewish schools have armed guards at their gate we need to reflect on anti-semitism wherever it appears. This is an issue.


      1. Martin I don’t think I am disagreeing with you. I am certainly not suggesting censorship. My concern is that if the audience mistake a performance for reality then something has gone wrong. The opportunity for the fiction to challenge and promote reflection on reality has been missed.


  2. Hi Ken!

    I don’t think we are disagreeing or agreeing for that matter… This is a complex issue. I am not suggesting that the audience mistake a performance for reality. What I am suggesting is that in this day and age certain texts should fall under a different level of scrutiny than others… Which means the context in which they are viewed should be wider than that offered in a GCSE exam or in a school play.


  3. Do you think this is symptomatic of a wider malaise in education, which is the de-contextualisation of the subject. I studied the Merchant of Venice at school and it instilled in me a life long dislike of Shakespeare.

    To study the prose of such a brutal and challenging play was, I think, a poor idea. The message is so powerful that the prose withers at its feet. Equally I think its impossible to have anything that could be described as an education without confronting challenging texts.

    The problem it seems to me is that the nature of modern education leaves little room or context to deal with really challenging texts particularly in light of the Govian revolution and a “teaching to the test mentality”.

    I don’t think, as a nation, we have the confidence to deal with complexity. We are frightened of ourselves and what we might think about difficult issues. Hence the need for a very safe, very British canon.


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